What’s In a Story?
WWhen I was a kid, corporal punishment was instant if my mom thought I was “telling a story.” That little phrase (metaphor) was short for “lying.” Lying, in my mom’s encyclopedia of sins, was right up there at the top. Fibbing was out!
When we call the Bible a story, it is not in the category that my mom defined the word story. When we talk about “telling its story,” it’s not about a group of unrelated stories that somehow forms a lie. It is a story full of the action of God from beginning to end. He is the great hero and main character of the whole story he tells. In this grand narrative, we have “bit parts” to play in the overall scheme of things. That doesn’t mean that our part is not important — it is. We are well created to play our part of our scene. More anon about that.
The sacred text of Christians is made up of lots of stories that each author tells as part of the complete Story. Each one has a story to tell and each one appears to conform his or her story to the overall plot of the complete Story. What is that plot? I hear you asking.
The various authors provide the plot in each story, simply emphasizing one idea over the rest. This way of reading the sacred text will help you discover the larger story in all the smaller stories and keep you from inventing a different story in the smaller story from the overall Story. I think I used story just about the right number of times in the previous sentence.
Christopher Wright’s approach has been to develop an approach that sees the mission of God (and the participation in it of God’s people) as a framework within which we can read the whole Bible.[ref]Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 17. [/ref] Tom Wright (no kin) suggests in his book The New Testament and the People of God,[ref]N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1992), 140. [/ref] that Scripture is a five-act-play.[ref]Winn Griffin, God’s EPIC Adventure (Woodinville, WA: Harmon Press, 2007). In my book, I focus on this way of thinking about Scripture and offer a breakdown of our sacred text into Acts and Scenes. [/ref] Since writing my own book with Wright’s five-act-play metaphor as its basis, I now think the storyline could be better seen as a six-act-play as follows:
The storyline provides its solution in Genesis 1 at the beginning of the story[ref]G. K. Chesterton, “Wisdom of Father Brown,” http://www.ccel.org/c/chesterton/wisdom/prplewig.html (accessed November 11 2010). In Chapter 7, “The Purple Wig,” Finn says, “I know it is the practice of journalists to put the end of the story at the beginning and call it a headline.” [/ref] before it actually poses the problem. The story in the second creation narrative narrows to the story of one couple (again think community) from which would come another community: Israel, God’s chosen community to whom he gave a covenant. The solving of the problem is carried out by a community working within the framework of a covenant built on the relationship of God (think community) who created it and works within it to bring about a restoration of the good creation. The crowned apex of the story, as the story moves along, was the interactive community of God with the incarnate one providing a model of what true humanity is really like and leaving yet another community (think church) to bring a message of restoration to the present world, which was produced by the breaking of the one stipulation in the Garden story. The consummation of the story is the recreation of the solution found at the beginning of the story in the Garden. That future glimpse draws us presently into the storyline to live into what we will become in the present age.
On thinking about interpreting the storyline, Scot McKnight notes that each of the authors writes his[ref]I am using the masculine “his” here because it is usually accepted that all the books of the Canon were written or edited by males, although there have been some who believe that there may have been a woman author for the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. [/ref] story within the plot of the metanarrative while at the same time each author is given considerable freedom to tell the story in his own specific way.[ref]Scott McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2008), 66. [/ref] Each book by each author is simply a variation of this overall storyline. I coined the word fractalgesis for this way of thinking. Fractals are seeing the smallest part in the whole. A fractal is “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole. Fractalgesis then is the art of reading the metanarrative refracted through a prism to discover the meaning of the narrative at hand with the original concept imbedded into the smallest concept.[ref]Winn Griffin, “Exegesis, Eisegesis, and Fractalgesis or Fractagesis,” http://drwinn.com/2008/07/27/exegesis-eisegesis-and-fractalgesis-or-fractagesis/ (accessed November 20 2010). [/ref]
So, the various authors of the storyline provide the plot in each story, simply emphasizing one idea over the rest. This way of reading the sacred text can be helpful to discover the larger story in all the smaller stories and keep us as readers from inventing a different story in the smaller story from the overall Story.[ref] I think I used story just about the right number of times in this sentence. [/ref] Does the storyline provide a needle through which the thread of community can be threaded? Here is a brief summary of the six acts:
Creation: Creating the Stage On Which the Story Will Be Acted Out
Beginning in Act 1 of the drama (Genesis 1-2) —“there was a time when God spoke all things into existence….” This Act demonstrates the attitude of Scripture about the Creation narratives and shows its polemic use in early Israel as a tract to help her realize that God was serious about not breaking the first stipulation of the Covenant. In this creation act, God created humankind as male and female, which may demonstrate the idea of community as a prominent concept from creation forward that should be noted. Male and female are one created as two. In this beginning story, harmony with God, self, others, and the world can be observed.[ref]Griffin, God’s EPIC Adventure, xiii. [/ref]
Separation. From Dependence to Independence
As a reader turns the pages to the second story (Act), there is a startling account of how this first human community, created for harmony, decided to bring the good created work of God into Chaos by their decision to become independent from God instead of interdependent with him. Disharmony replaced harmony. The first couple’s (read community) decision to follow their own way causes them to be exiled from the garden in which they lived. Human relationship, distorted by sin and unable to see God’s image clearly, now sets the stage for the long recovery process as seen in the stories of the flood, the Babel account, and beyond. The crown of creation decided to worship what God had created instead of the Creator.
Covenant: Israel: The Called People of God to Be the Light of the World
As we read the next Act, we discover that God chose a group of people (read community) through whom he wished to share with all his creation what he is like, a people who could demonstrate what living in the garden was like even now in the present Chaos created in the garden. Israel was born and her vocation was to be the light of the world, to demonstrate what God was like to a pagan society. Four events knit this act together: First, the Exodus/Redemption story in which God reaches into the slave market of the world and redeems Israel. Second, Covenant: the national charter created to help Israel understand how to be the people of God in the midst of Chaos. This Covenant was based on an ancient form of covenant called the “Lord-Servant Treaty.” The lord of the covenant performs a mighty act of salvation for the servants of the treaty. Based on what the lord of the covenant has done for them, the recipients of the covenant agree to follow the stipulations of the covenant. This story of covenant-making is found in Exodus and the rest of the Old Testament plays that story out. There are many sub-stories in this longer Act of the Story. These stories are understandable when one keeps the concept of Covenant at hand while reading them. Third, the kingdom period where the struggle for form and function caused ongoing chaos. Finally, the Exile/Return, a time when Israel sought to reclaim her vocation.
It is safe to say that the Covenant Act in the Story is the one that gets read in total the least. Many readers read their favorite parts of this story while leaving out huge chunks of it, rather wanting to rush ahead to read the Christ story. How tragic! It is also fair to say that community plays a large part in the telling of this story. While stories about individuals are told, they are tied to the community in which they live.
Christ: Jesus. The True Human Being
Christ, and his arrival into the storyline makes this Act the apex of the Story. It is the climax of the Story that appears somewhat earlier than the end of the Story, but fashions the rest of the Story that was told and the scenes of the story that we live in today. The story of the kingdom of God from the Old Testament is continued in the story of Christ. His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are all told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the setting of the small tribe (read community) of folks, both men and women that followed him. Each author writes his own story of Creation, Chaos, Covenant, Christ, Church, and hints of Consummation. These stories are influenced by the timeframe of Second Temple Judaism and demonstrate the call of Jesus to the community of Israel to “Repent and Believe[ref]The phrase “repent and believe” is second person plural in Greek.[/ref] ” and stop trying to be God’s people via quietist, military means, or compromising ways, and begin living as he would show them to live by his words and works. The stories demonstrate Jesus telling the story in his own words (what it means to be authentic disciples) and demonstrate the story with his works (healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and caring for the needs of people). We often read this story with the focus on Jesus and rightly so, but we must also attempt to read it within the context of the larger community in which he lived and the smaller community in which he also lived.
Church: The Rest of the Story in The New Testament
The story of Christ, which I often call Body 1, leads to the next Act of the story: the Church, which I often call Body 2. Body 2 is a community. While the Spirit has always been around, he did not “come” on the day of Pentecost as if he were never here in the forgoing Acts of the story. Rather, the story of the “acts of the Spirit” are highlighted in his continued formation of Body 2 as re-created humanity, empowered and equipped with his gracelets to carry out the mandate to go into the world and make disciples.
The Church has a long and variegated history. Her struggles to be the people of God for the sake of the world are shared in vivid detail of corruption and redemption. As participating members of this ministering group of folks, our job is to bring the good news of the kingdom to this present evil age in our works and our words empowered by the Spirit.
We are living in this timeframe that continues until the Consummation. As we live as Body 2, as truly human beings, we are to imagine and improvise in our scene of the story the living of God’s story for the sake of others.
Consummation: The Beginning of Forever
One day future, no one knows when, not even the Left Behind authors and others who have written thousands of words to convince folks that they do know, the new heavens and earth will arrive. The consummation of the Story will occur in this Act. Body 2 will enter into a different sphere, the new heavens and the new earth. The first garden will be replaced by a new garden[ref] Ray Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic), 187-188. Some authors like Ray Bakke suggest that the story moves from garden to city, making urban mission a mission of God. We must remember that when we make any kind of attestation about the “actual” words being used to be “literal” in their concept, we may be going beyond the concept the author intended. It is fair to say that if the new heavens and new earth is a city, which really does not make sense, the new Jerusalem city will be garden-like in the essence of what the original garden was like: a place where the Creator God ruled and reigned over his creation.[/ref] and the King of Kings will live and rule his community and creation forever. [ref]Griffin, God’s EPIC Adventure, xiii. [/ref]
The storyline of our sacred text is embedded with the concept of community and it seems reasonable that while the individual is a part of its community, it is not the autonomous individual of the Enlightenment that is unaffected by the aspects of a biblical community.
Principles to Follow or Story to Live Into?
We need to think about what we think Scripture is. Here’s an interesting question: Is the Bible a book of principles to be followed? For the most part, we have been raised with a presupposition that Scripture is a book of principles, which we can discover and then personally follow. We have come to believe that Scripture gives very “pat” answers to all of life’s difficult questions, which are easily found in the verses that we quote out of context. Just find the principle and follow it. Sort of a Nike ring to it: “Just Do It!” What if we ask the following question: Is Scripture a textbook for teaching moral values and life principles by which we should live or a story into which we live? The answer one gives depends on how Scripture is defined.
The late Dr. George Ladd has said that “Scripture is the word of God written in the words of men.”[ref]George Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids, IL: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1967), 12. [/ref] Scripture is a book that demonstrates how God has acted on behalf of his children. It pictures in story form the acts of God and then interprets them for us. Thus, God both acts and interprets his acts as he sets them in his story. The sacred text lives within this tension of the “both/and,” which helps us begin the process of understanding the will of God from its narrative.
If we want to understand God in today’s culture, we may need to become familiar with how God has acted in faithfulness to his children in the previous Acts of his story, and what he says those acts mean. Then, we can have faith in the faithfulness of God and have a broader picture of his will for the life of the church of which each believer is a vital part.
A Book of Theology for Instruction?
The acts that God has performed are not understandable apart from the words that explain them. The flip side of this coin is also true: the word of God remains powerless without the acts of God. We cannot separate them! The words of the writer of Exodus give us a clear understanding of this process.
Therefore, say to the Israelites: “I am the Lord and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them and will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians (Exodus 6.6-7).
In this passage, God is interpreting the events that will occur for Israel before those events occurred in time and space. Note that God told them who he was and what he was going to do. The acts of God, which were yet to come, accompanied by his word, would help his children to know that he was their God and be able to live out the first stipulation of the Covenant that would be made with them: you can only have me as God!
Israel came to know God through his prophetic acts and the prophetic word that explained those acts. The acts of God and the interpretations of those acts form a theological basis of how Scripture should be approached. We have done much in the Western world to systematize and topicalize Scripture. Most sermons heard by the average congregant are filled with the disease of topicalitis,[ref]Griffin, God’s EPIC Adventure, 13. Topicalitis is “a contagious and deadly Bible-teaching disorder.” [/ref] with application for personal individualistic growth. This way of treating Scripture has often led us to faulty conclusions concerning the meaning of our sacred text. This surely applies to our understanding of the “will of God.” It is no wonder that Christians are weak and listless in their lives, going from one high to another as if they were smoking spiritual weed and inhaling it. One has to wonder how God might feel, spending the time and care that he did over the centuries to provide a story of his work and will in his creation, only to have it turned into bits and pieces, quoted at whim to prove every conceivable point that one wants to argue. God surely must weep over our propensity to fragment his story. So it is at risk that I quote passages in the next section. I do so with the hope that readers don’t just put them in their “memorized arsenal” quoting them willy nilly.
What does all this mean in relation to finding God’s will? It may mean that we should determine for ourselves how we have used Scripture to receive guidance. Then, based on what we have just shared, determine if we should alter our view, and look to Scripture with a different set of glasses concerning guidance. What I am suggesting is that Scripture is a book of theology provided for us in a storyline, which gives us instruction concerning the actions of God and the interpretation of those actions, so that we know how to live out our lives in his story in the scenes that we play our part.
It is always important to have a feel for the storyline of Scripture especially when you are quoting fragments that have often been seen as “stand alone” concepts without any context support.
Selected Scriptures about Guidance
The following passages are selected as a mirror of God’s guidance from Old Testament Scripture. They are not exhaustive. They are not meant to be read and understood outside their contexts. They are listed as a way of providing information about some places to see the concept of the will of God as it appears in the story of God. For thorough comprehension, you should read and study these passages in their historical context and set them in the storyline of the whole story. Read a Bible dictionary article or a commentary to get some sense of the characters and context of the story. You should be careful not to read all of the “you” words as singular as if they specifically refer to you personally. Some are plural and need to be understood in the light of community.
The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you” (Gen 12.1).
By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night (Ex 13.21).
In your unfailing love you will lead
the people you have redeemed
In your strength you will guide them
to your holy dwelling (Ex 15.13).
So they set out from the mountain of the LORD and traveled for three days. The ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them during those three days to find them a place to rest (Num 10.33).
You, LORD, are my lamp;
the LORD turns my darkness into light (2 Sam 22.29).
Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not fail to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take (Neh 9.19).
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters (Ps 23.2)
Show me your ways, O LORD,
teach me your paths;
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior
and my hope is in you all day long (Ps 25.5).
Teach me your way, LORD;
lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors (Ps 27.11).
Since you are my rock and my fortress
for the sake of your name lead and guide me (Ps 31.3).
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you and watch over you (Ps 32.8).
For this God is our God forever and ever;
he will be our guide even to the end (Ps 48.14).
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory (Ps 73.24).
But he brought his people out like a flock
he led them like sheep through the wilderness (Ps 78.52).
He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle (Ps 107.7).
If I rise on the wings of the dawn
if I settle on the far side of the sea
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast (Ps 139.9-10),
I walk in the way of righteousness
along the paths of justice (Prov 8.20),
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart
he gently leads those that have young (Isa 40.11).
Remember, these are only a few of the Old Testament passages that speak about being guided by God. I have only included them here to help readers see this idea as it is found in the larger Act of the story to which very little attention is given. They represent many stories. One must remember that a passage out of its context has no meaning. If you choose to study these passages in their context, they will provide you with some ongoing insights for the journey of your community and for you personally.
Scripture does have a voice in demonstrating God’s will. Our tendency is often to determine God’s will in our lives solely from reading and trying to understand Scripture. The following are some of the ways Scripture provides guidance for our lives.
Direction. Scripture models for us how God has given direction to his children, i.e., his favorable acts toward them. From those acts, he will often choose to speak to us direction for our lives and the life of the community of which we are a part. We have the added bonus of having a community to help us sort through what we can set our hand to that God is already doing. We often use Scripture, however, like Chinese fortune cookies. Recently, I discovered a company called Evangelistic Foods that has put out a version of this idea called “Scripture Cookies®,” with the following advertisement: Each delicious, individually “bubble” wrapped Scripture Cookie® contains one of 420 uplifting verses. Appealing to all ages. They are perfect for holidays, celebrations, retreats, Bible studies, pastoral ministries, gifts … or simply just because. Incidentally, the suggested retail price is 25¢ each or 5/$1.00. Can’t you hear it now? “Honey, let’s go to Bible study tonight. Don’t forget to grab the Scripture Cookies.”[ref] Scripture Cookies, “About,” http://www.scriptcookie.com/about/ (accessed August 25, 2010). This is not new. It has been going on since 1987. [/ref] I’ve been to those studies before.[ref] A friend who read this manuscript suggested that this gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “tossing your cookies” at Bible Study. I think I agree! [/ref]
Enlightenment. As we understand how God has worked with his children and what that means, we are enlightened as to how he will work with us on our behalf in the same way in similar situations.
Confirmation. Scripture provides confirmation in at least two ways. First, by the Spirit speaking such through the story being read in Scripture. Second, by seeing the circumstances of a family member’s story in Scripture and understanding that God will work the same way with us.
Correction. Second Timothy 3.16 tells us that one of the things which Scripture will do for us by providing the correction we need. Often when we have decided to do “our will” instead of “God’s will,” we have decided to live in our own created story rather than in his creative story. When we realize that, Scripture will point its finger at us with a word to correct the predicament we have provided for ourselves.
Several years ago when our family lived in Colorado, I grew tired of what I was doing in a small church that we had planted. One evening in a traditional mid-week Bible study as I was teaching, I found myself just saying the words but my mind was totally elsewhere actually wishing that I was anywhere but there doing what I was doing.
As my wife and I left that evening, I told her that I was finished with the work of a Bible teacher, something I had spent years doing. We went to a local coffee shop to talk about the impact that was about to happen to our lives. We talked for several hours through several glasses of iced tea. When we went home and crawled into bed, the last thing I remember was her hand on my back as she prayed for me quietly in the Spirit.
The next morning as I woke, I caught myself trying to speak to God. All that I could say, and not even in an audible voice, was “help!” I laid there rehearsing that prayer for several minutes and finally dragged myself out of bed.
As I was taking a shower, I had an impression. I thought it might be God. The words that replaced “help” in my mind was “go to Seattle.” I remember thinking, now there is a thought. Go someplace where I literally only know four people. Are you crazy? But the thought persisted. Soon, I found myself at peace, remembering that peace in the New Testament doesn’t mean being absent of conflict but being at rest in the midst of turmoil.
Soon, I found myself downstairs where Donna was inviting me to breakfast and I said, “May I have a glass of orange juice? I have something I want to share with you.” As we sat in our living room, I shared with her what my impression was. Without hesitation, she said, “I’ve known that for almost a year.” I was dumbfounded, thinking, why does it always seem that I am the last one to find out things.
However, I knew better than to start packing to move to Seattle. Even though I trusted my wife, I still needed some in our church community to hear me out and give me their thoughts. So I called three families that I had built a relationship of trust with and asked if I could drop by their house that evening for about thirty minutes. Donna and I went to each home, sharing my morning experience within the context of the night before and asking two things of our friends: First, what do you think and, second, after leaving here and going to Jim and Joan’s home (names are fictional), would they commit not to get on the phone and call anyone about our conversation until I had made the rounds. We listened and left and moved on to the next home and the final one. On each occasion, the response was the same. “Winn, we love you, we love your family, we love how you have trained us, we hate to lose you, but we think that this is God calling you.”
What did I do next? I called my sister and asked her if I could borrow the money to go to Seattle. She asked how much. I told her and in a couple of days the money arrived. I called one of the four people that I knew in Seattle and asked if I could visit them for a couple of days.
Next, Donna and I sought out a real estate salesperson to help us sell our home, one we loved and had customized to meet our needs. He was a bit negative telling us that the Denver market was depressed and that he had an identical house listed not many blocks from ours that had been on the market for almost a year and had only had a couple of visitors, but no one was interested. I told him that I needed to sell because God had called me to Seattle. As a Jesus follower, he understood. He listed the house and we began the very first weekend to have “visitors.”
My son Jason and I planned for the trip to Seattle with two purposes in mind, find a job, and find a place to live. Just before the trip to Seattle began, our realtor called and told us that he had a cash offer that netted us more than we anticipated. Jason and I were in Wyoming when I contacted Donna and she told me the deal had been sealed and that the couple wanted to move into the house in three weeks. Jason and I were going to be gone for two weeks.
In Seattle, we accomplished one of the two goals. We found a house to rent and rented it without a local job, but being able to move in within three weeks. We returned home, escrow closed, we furiously packed for a week, loaded our whole life on two Ryder trucks towing two cars, and headed out for Seattle.
So what’s the point of this rather long story. I wanted to quit. Apparently God didn’t want me to do so. I trusted my community of faith to help me sort through the implications of what I thought God might be saying to me and Donna.
You should know that the move was successful. I was bent on finding employment outside of the church world. I did some writing jobs as a contract worker, but finally, after about a year I reentered the church and took a position. It was short-lived. In less than a year, the senior showed me the door, just one week before Christmas. Over the years that we have been in Seattle, I have had the privilege of teaching thousands of students live, in print, and on the Net. It wasn’t what I envisioned, but I kept putting my hand to what I saw God doing and in so doing was living in his will.
Yes, God provides direction. He enlightens, confirms, and, yes, even corrects us along the journey.